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Mana



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Lumi says...



Mana
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Yes, this OP has been stripped of entry info.

_______________________________


Cast



1. Valon, the Fire Mage Duelist! The Fearless™ Leader!
2. Astrid, the All-Caring™ Druid! The Shadow Beneath The Roots.
3. Ziafar, the Ever-Studious Arcanist! The Law Where There Is No Law!
4. Zoey, the Deceiving Light Rogue! The Giggle That Comes Before The Cut!

Soundtrack


PM me for the soundtrack!

Rules & Regulations



1. Third Person
2. Past Tense
3. Limit backwards writing.
4. Judge content injection at your discretion, though keep the pornography out of the Mana. There's a drought going on, you know. Of mana, that is.
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


I am the property of Rydia, please return me to her ship.





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Wed Oct 26, 2016 12:39 am
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Lumi says...



Chapter One: Simulacrum


Between deep inhales of burning air and languished exhales did Valon ponder the Alani crisis. He could remember the sound, as if the mouth of a dead man had opened to gasp for air amongst ravaging sands. The hiss, the vacuum, the sudden and manifest robbery of the senses. Many Alani had said to gone blind that day.

Exhale.

And perhaps it would be irresponsible for Valon to distinguish the Mana crisis as The Alani crisis. Day by day, refugees from the burning mountain of Oer Akhan spattered against the city walls of Espergale. The city had stood with its borders surrounding the nearby lake and forest for centuries, and yet...

Exhale.

Frustration grew. Despite the pillars of fire around him, despite the incensory and oils, no power would return to him save the paltry spells he had spat out at Tynan as a child. With a furious flourish, Valon slammed his heel into the burning marble floor beneath him and uncrossed his legs, standing resolute.

No amount of dwelling on the crisis would bring his power back -- and without his power, he could make no gold. Surely old comrades had the same ideas. In fact, one already did.

"Ziafar," demanded Valon, "you and I are to set out to Espergale Lake tonight. We have a druid to hunt."

Ziafar entered Valon's burning chamber slowly, eyes on the ground--not in reverence, mind you, but in taste. "As complex as I'm certain the mistress will feel to see you, Valon, I would certainly suggest donning armor less befitting a newborn."

If Ziafar didn't know better, he could've sworn for a brief moment a flush of embarrassment covered the bastard's cheeks. A thick and furious wall of flame immediately rose between them, and the arcanist meandered to the outside where the clime was much more agreeable to his book-in-hand: Sad Elves: 1001 Equations Inspired By The Calamity of Oer Akhan. It was quite a lovely read--such spicy use of the number seven!

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"You can see the quest details if you'd like," Valon noted, "on your bookmark. I left the gold amount and target on page 419, the equation for dismantling a chimera's first throat using arcanism."

"Spoilers!" cut Ziafar. "Though I have already read that far, and I'd predicted your quest choice. You want to attempt a simulacrum."

Valon turned his eyes to meet Zia's. The palanquin carrying them maneuvered over branches in the path. "How in the seven hells--"

"I do your laundry and paperwork. You've submitted over sixty requests for a scroll of simulacrum, and you wish to capture the Lion's Breath."

"And what if I wanted to give the gift to you, hm?" He pouted. "I'm capable of being kind, little scholar."

"You're capable of being charitable with your scraps," he reprimanded.

"Fine, fine. I'm an insufferable bastard. But no amount of chimera can stand in the way of me regaining the power of the Royal Pyrologen."

Eyes in his book. "If memory serves, you were stripped of that title long before you met any of us, Valon. Tsk." He shook his head. "You may have all the power in Espergale, but you have no respect, and the Pontifex wants your head for it.

"And what makes you say that?"

"We live beneath the roots of a Marbletree."

"That's so Tynan doesn't come crashing my parties."

"Parties imply you have friends."

"..."

"..."

"Oh look," Ziafar wafted down from the palanquin and touched his feet into the marshy walkway. "There's Astrid." He grinned, turning his head back to Valon. "And I believe I sense Tynan nearby."

Valon looked around cautiously. He owed so many people money. "Is that all?"

"Well, there's Zoey atop the palanquin, but she's been with us since Highwash Grove."

Valon looked up. Zoey winked down at him with a zap of static between them.

"Okay, so if we just hurry, we can avoid Tynan and split the chimera job four ways. Easy money, no hard bargains, no reunions, no messy emotional nonsense."

"Oh, Valon," sighed Zoey. "You don't make demands of the universe after a calamity! The calamity makes demands of you!" She hopped down and poked a finger to his nose. "According to my sources, Tynan was canned after the calamity because the mana reserve was supposedly 'robbed' on his watch. So while I don't know, like, or give two flying dungs about the guy, you gotta cut him in." She pouted. "You're cradle buddies."

"How the hells does she know this?!"

Ziafar straightened his glasses. "She comes by during your meditations to help with paperwork, though she does more snooping than helping." He plucked a sticky lollipop from her hair and chucked it into the marsh. "We're a five-man band, I'm afraid. One of the first equations in the book, though!" A huge, cheesey grin.

"Gods forfend I make a copper piece."

Zoey giggled. "He has a simulacrum supplier!"

"Hot horsebirds, let's meet our party members!"
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


I am the property of Rydia, please return me to her ship.





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Fri Oct 28, 2016 10:51 pm
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Rydia says...



Chapter 1b: Old Beginnings

The sickroom didn't smell of sickness, it was far worse than that. There had been so much heavy incense pumped into the crowded space and Astrid choked on the thick air and clung to the door-frame as the fumes fogged up her head.

"Where's the patient?" she mumbled as she pressed the sleeve of her dress to her mouth and tried not to breathe. "If you have windows, open them. Now!"

The boy who'd brought her here leapt into action and started throwing shutters wide as a girl wrung her hands in the corner of the room and two smaller children huddled behind her skirt. The patient gave a soft moan as she flailed weakly on the bed, her hair plastered to her face by a sheen of sweat.

"The- the- the 'erbalist said-"

"I know what they say," Astrid muttered angrily. "Have you got hot water?"

The girl gave a timid nod and Astrid bit down softly on her tongue, in part to scold herself for her harsh tone- in the days since mana had left this world, a frustration had started to consume her so entirely that she could hardly find herself some days - but also because the situation was dire. She turned to the boy again who was standing tensely in front of her, his body almost shaking with a readiness to move. "I don't know how much I can do for her," Astrid warned in a much gentler tone. "But I'll do my best."

The dark haired healer first set about mixing two concoctions - one a thick paste made from aloe gel and turmeric and the second a hot beverage brewed from willow bark, ginger, cloves and a glob of honey. She worked quickly, well practiced in this art since healers had supplemented their spells with herbal remedies since the beginning of time. It was the next part she dreaded.

Astrid instructed the children on where to place hot towels and she had the girl persuade her mother to drink as much of the hot liquid as she could while Astrid sterilized her blade in the fire. The metal was still hot when she made the first incision, but there wasn't much time and the patient came suddenly alive, screaming fiercely and trying to pull away. The boy cried as Astrid hissed at him to hold her down and a few minutes later, as the woman's scream died in her hoarse throat, a new, fresh scream broke the silence.

Astrid cut the baby's umbilical cord quickly and passed him off to one of the smaller children as she turned her full attention to the mother who was staring blankly at the ceiling, her body shaking as blood leaked from the clumsy cut. A spell would have been much neater. A spell would have guaranteed her survival but all Astrid could do was sew her up, cast the apprentice grade spell of Verdant Light and hope that the tumeric paste kept infection at bay.

"Find a wet nurse for the baby - he needs feeding and keeping warm. Keep your mum warm too and I'll drop by again soon." Astrid packed her things away and tiredly accepted their thanks - it was all they could offer - as she made her way to the door. She hesitated for a moment and gave one final instruction: "Make sure you get more plants."

~Four patients later~

The quest details had been sketchy at best and Astrid didn't know what Valon thought she was capable of in her post mana state but it was easier to tell him no in person. Or, it at least saved him the trouble of hunting her down so he could refuse her refusal.

"What's this?" Astrid asked, holding the letter in front of her. "You skimped on half the details, listed the reward as 'a prize beyond prizes' and there's not even a claim that you'll pay me the money you still owe."

Valon shot a look at his new companion, Ziafar, who Astrid was still not entirely sure about, and held his hands up in front of him before turning back to her. "Well it wasn't me who invited you and I paid you that money years ago." As he said the word money, Valon looked furtively up and down the street and tried to sit further back in the palanquin. "But since it's not me seeking your services, I can hardly be expected to split my reward with you."

It wasn't the first time Valon had refuted her claim, though he usually preferred to pretend he had simply forgotten to pay her and would certainly find the funds this time. It seemed he was't trying to wheedle her on to the mission afterall, which begged the question of why she was here. Ziafar had entered their lives only months before and the fact he was able to replicate Valon's handwriting and mimic at least some of his prose style was worrying at best. The potential for manipulation made Astrid feel uneasy as she recalled how on their last quest, before Mana had vanished from the world, Ziafar had persuaded a greedy merchant to share a portion of his riches with them in exchange for their guarding his treasure from 'outward sources'.

Of course, the initial plan had involved Valon and Zoey acting as the outward forces, which was how Ziafar had persuaded the merchant to take on their services in the first place, but Astrid felt their earnings had been justified in the end when a real band of Mana wielding thieves had attacked with gusto and for a while created what had felt like a three way fight in all the confusion. Even Ziafar had struggled to explain to the merchant why the first group of thieves had suddenly joined forces with them against the second...

"You sent me the quest invite?" Astrid asked skeptically.

"My calculations insist we shouldn't be doing this without a healer. If Valon came up with as many sensible plans as he has these harebrained schemes then he'd have enlisted you eventually." Ziafar's words were logical rather than complimentary and he spoke in a gruff tone which did nothing to soften Astrid's heart toward him. She was normally all for surrounding Valon with people who might keep him out of trouble but there was something about Ziafar which didn't sit quite right with her.

"Harebrained? Hey!" Valon objected. "If it's so harebrained, why are you even forming a party? I didn't ask you to." His tone took on a sulky edge but there was a certain amount of steel there as well and Astrid knew he was thinking that he could do whatever it was he planned to do without their help. Of course, Valon believing he could do things he couldn't was a common flaw and she felt her lips twitch in a smile as she recalled the first time they met.

"Well it's just about do-able with my genius," Ziafar explained. "And by gathering the right playing pieces, that is to say, ah- inviting your invaluable comrades."

Astrid folded her arms at the sarcasm in his tone, though she could feel a squirming guilt inside her as she wondered how much they knew or guessed about her inability to cast more than a few basic spells.

"I wasn't invited, but I decided to come anyway," Zoey butted in with a quick smile and an enthusiastic wriggle of her knife in an Eastward direction. "Here's Tynan, I have a feeling he got an invite."

Astrid frowned in Ziafar's direction as the cogs spun in her head and she surmised that the best way to ensure Zoey attended such an adventure would be to not extend her an invitation. There was definitely something afoot here.

A steel clad man stepped into view a moment later and gave the group a stoic nod as he made his way into their presence.

"What exactly is this harebrained plan?" Astrid asked. "I'm not saying I'm going with you, I'm not sure I even qualify as a healer any more, in fact, I'm certain I don't, but what little I am doing here is needed. So what makes you think I'll come with you?"

Astrid felt the familiar frustration bubbling up again and had to fight it down. She hated being less than a healer; before she would have argued that she was more than a healer and could hold her own just fine with a solid staff or a well strung bow, but now that those were her primary form of fending for herself, she couldn't help feeling a huge emptiness burning within.
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The light shines brightest in the darkest places.





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TheSilverFox says...



Chapter 1c: Messy Emotional Nonsense



These conditions were dreadful for his complexion. The marsh was so humid and everything had such an ugly shade of green, on top of looking marginally unhospitable to live by, what with the strange sounds in the depths of the marshes and the algae and vines that coated the landscape. He didn’t know why anybody would hope to reside here, as it seemed so dark and putrid. This was not what nature was meant to be. Yet, life had a propensity to carry on as though nothing was wrong in most all environments, which was its most obnoxious trait. Nevertheless, he was glad that the palanquin left the area posthaste, with the entire, arguing five-man band in tow, and made its way quickly to the nearest household of any of theirs in the vicinity – Astrid’s.

In all honesty, he was disappointed about how slow the trip was. Had he had his original powers, he could’ve lifted the whole damn thing himself with arcane energy and lifted it to its destination. But…he’d rather not think of his loss, and the way that he stared disappointingly at those weak hands and flimsy frame. Still, the Harbingers – the skeleton-like horses he’d paid a fine penny for – did their job. Before they knew it, they arrived at the quaint little circular barn where Astrid lived, stuffed in between a large, somewhat dead-looking field of what looked to be grapes, with proper installations for the vines to grow around, as well as a couple of fruit trees, and a small stream that swiftly poured in front of the average forest. Quaint.

“Wait, how did you –” began the dark-haired Astrid.

“Valon has been here before,” said Ziafar, dismissing with a wave of his hand, before dramatically stepping off the palanquin and landing awkwardly on his right foot. “And he can say a lot when drunk.” He handed a copper piece to the shady and cloaked figure that had been directing the Harbingers, and waited for the others to step down with him, carrying whatever belongings they felt like bringing in the process. Valon seemed ready to fire back a snappy comment, but hesitated, and ended up resorting to sulking.

None of those faces were friendly towards him. Valon wasn’t happy to be around Tynan, who himself always seemed to have a perpetually hardened stare. Astrid was immensely confused, which Ziafar attributed to the intentionally ambiguous nature of the quest. Beyond Valon, only Zoey had an awareness of what they were planning, and she was merely miffed at him for throwing her lollipop into the marsh. He still wasn’t apologizing for that. Regardless, both Astrid and Tynan had been left in the dark, and they weren’t pleased by this. Nevertheless, that masterful book, The Strategy Guide of Cynical Elves, written by a man Ziafar had last heard had thrown himself off of the walls of Oer Akhan when the disaster struck, had informed him that the best-laid plans never came into the light until they were well in place to begin. So, he felt silence would do for now. It hadn’t helped that Ziafar had been listening to their persistent arguing and mumbling before now, which itself had been a tiresome din he’d been happy to get away from. Yet, out of the frying pan, and into the fire. Now he had to deal with four idiots. Or, rather, three, since he didn’t have much disrespect for Tynan. Except for the fact that the man was smart, but rarely chose to provide insight or act as a confident leader. Then again, the prospect of him speaking more wasn’t the most favorable one, even if he had a hard time admitting that to himself.

The Harbingers and their rider vanished into the distance with a loud crack of a whip, causing Ziafar to flinch. Nevertheless, he led the small procession away from the dirt road and onto the series of paving stones, which were covered in simple designs, that led to the rustic circular structure that was Astrid’s home. It was like a yurt, but with thicker and wooden walls extracted from the forest, atop which was a canopy of leaves produced by various small plants. Parts of the walls were painted white, although layers of dirt and dust made them take on a light shade of brown, and the oval-shaped door was easily pushed aside at Ziafar’s touch, allowing the elf to step into a relatively clean room.

Straight lines had fallen out of elven architectural style decades ago, and such was the situation here. The marginally dirt floor indicated that this space had formerly been a barn, and the faint order of hay and animals agreed with this. Yet, it had been repurposed to act as a simple house, and a few poorly-constructed wooden walls (Astrid did not seem to be an architect) separated the large central space from what appeared to be a rudimentary bedroom and a privy. The former was positioned in front of Ziafar and to the right, and all that could be seen was a simple oak bed, upon which a few blankets embroidered with scenes of nature atop a mattress of what was most likely a sack filled with straw. The less said about the privy, which was left of the bedroom, the better, although it appeared to be a simple hole in the ground. The place acted like it was humming in hushed tones, and the overwhelming scent of medicinal herbs and plants reached Ziafar’s nostrils. Thick wooden beams blanketed the ceiling, likely upholding the layer of dirt that formed what the elf could guess was probably a roof garden, to which a ladder poked up into to Ziafar’s left. There were a few curved shelves along the walls, where the finished products of the gardens were arranged in neat rows and arrangements, ready to be used. He didn’t know their names, and honestly didn’t care, particularly among some of the more obnoxiously smelly herbs. At least there were some bundles of what he surmised to be food in and amongst them. Likely salted meat placed in the best position it could be, as the curved walls provided no space for a cabinet.

Astrid strode into the house, pushing aside Ziafar before sitting down on one of the few wooden chairs that ringed a table in the center of the room. Clearly she hadn’t been expecting guests, as there were few furnishings to speak of. A rocking chair was positioned in one corner of the room – itself composed of hardened wood with an intricate little pattern that made it welcoming. For good reason, there wasn’t a fireplace in the area, although there was a little metal stove nudged up against one of the walls. He avoided the woman’s gaze as he looked about the space and rubbed his hand against a few vines that served as an interior décor. It was an adequate place, yet nothing exceptional. Except for the wood grain, which seemed surprisingly sturdy and fashionable.

There was an audible cough. The elf, having finished his systematically negative judgment of this household, turned to face its owner. Zoey skipped along and took one of the seats, while Valon made his way to the one farthest from Tynan, who took a spot beside the stove and resumed watching everyone, Ziafar in particular. Needless to say, it was eerie.

“You’ve pulled a lot of strings to get us here,” began Astrid. “Valon hadn’t invited me, and he certainly wouldn’t have brought along Tynan or Zoey.”

“Yes, yes, I’m aware,” dismissed Ziafar, who walked forward in front of the crowd gathered and set down a map he’d pulled from his pocket. “You want to know what plan I have, since I’ve taken this much time and effort to bring you all here. In case you didn’t know, I did forge the quest details and made them ambiguous. Valon’s signature style isn’t hard to replicate.”

“Spending all your time looking through my paperwork helped, I’m sure,” retorted Valon.

Ziafar shrugged. “This was all your idea – as your strategist, I had to see it come together. Somehow, by virtue of your sheer incompetence, I would like to think this would’ve happened anyway. It’s what you excel at.”

“Where are we going, and what is the plan?” demanded Tynan from his corner of the room, before anyone had a chance to say anything. The voice wasn’t all that loud, but it was firm. That man had such a propensity to ask the right questions at the right time, and cut right through the farcical details.

The elf was prepared to respond in turn, but hesitated. It was incredibly hard to him to address Tynan directly. So, instead, he pointed at one of the forested spots on the map, and let everyone crane over their seats to see.

“Who in the world is stupid enough to name a place the Tomato Jungle?” asked Zoey, face wrinkling in confusion.

“It’s a long and complicated story,” said Ziafar, who didn’t care enough to tell it. “Something about a fallen tomato, a land dispute, and a civil war between two military powers. Nothing of importance.” He hastily backtracked. “Actually, it is of some importance.

“We were asked by the military power of Glavin, to the north, to investigate some kind of crisis within the woods. They’ve been fighting their rivals, the state of Yliev, for years, and it’s been a rather bloody and tedious fight. However, it appears some kind of massive creature has attacked soldiers on both sides, fostering a few massacres. Quick, lethal, and remorseless, it is believed that the creature has taken up residence in the jungle, and is presently using it as a place to build its nest. The few scouts who’ve seen it and lived to tell the tale believe it to be a chimera. Yliev has always been stubborn and determined, and see no reason to call upon outside help. Glavin, however, has offered a sizeable reward to anyone who might come and kill the creature, with the full promise that they will cover the funeral costs of anyone who dies due to fire, friendly or otherwise.”

“So, you’ve brought us together,” replied Astrid slowly after a few seconds, highlighting the ridiculousness of the situation, “to lead us into a civil war so we can find and slay a giant monster? It must be my birthday. There has to be more to it than a money reward, even if it is large.”

“Ah, but Glavin is reasonable enough to promise not to kill us, and theirs is the more subversive and sneaky of the armies,” noted Ziafar. “Yliev should be easy enough to avoid, due to their natural ability to tromp through the jungle in full metal suits of armor. In all honesty, it’s a miracle that they’re still alive.”

Tynan stomped his foot to catch everyone’s attention. “You’re dodging the question. Why did you bring us here, what is the plan of action, and what about this plan are you not telling us?”

The two glared at each other. Ziafar never liked thinking of his past, and how there was nothing in it to smile about anymore. All that was left was a past source of pride and ego that had long ago faded away, leaving behind it inexorable anger and bitterness. Tynan’s involvement in his life was particularly noteworthy in his mind. As Ziafar remembered, Tynan had been sent after him when the Fifth Eye incident collapsed. The leader had been killed, the hostages to be sacrificed saved, and Ziafar, as one of the head disciples, had been pursued. His head was supposed to be on a plate, if the reward information he’d seen was anything to go by. They ran into each other, Ziafar had broken down and told his sob story, and Tynan had been remorseful (or cruel) enough to spare him, and send him to Valon. It was to this man that Ziafar owed his life, and yet it was this man he had collapsed in front of. His ego refused to neglect that memory. Nobody should dare know about his fear or that his personality was anything less than solid and exceptional.

Worse yet, he always had the impression that Tynan counted upon him to keep Valon in check, particularly when he wasn’t around that to do that himself. They were probably the two most competent individuals in the room, and Ziafar had effectively taken over as strategist and the party’s hapless guide. It felt like the man was pointing a sword at him in that regard, and waiting for Ziafar to slip up, cause some kind of harm or injury, and then run him through for it.

Ziafar hesitated and stammered, though he hoped he did it quietly enough that nobody could hear it, but pushed his feelings aside. “This is mostly my plan, although Valon contributed some with the strategy. Glavin has sent one of their transports, which should be arriving here shortly. We’ll take it into the Tomato Jungle, along a path that should be relatively safe and secure, and they’ll dump us off to the closest spot to the chimera’s nest as they want to. Then we’ll have to walk our way there. It is possible that the creature has been burrowing and making a complex network of tunnels, so we might have to enter the nearest one and make our way towards the center, or wherever its main hideout is.

“Everyone else hates me and wants me dead for one petty reason or another. The few of you only hate me or want me dead, and you also happen to be among the few people I actually know who don’t possess a massive grudge against me. We need our assassin to charm her foes and then dispatch them, a healer competent enough to treat some of the minor wounds, our ever-devoted leader, and the brilliant strategist to guide you all. As I’ve said, one of the first, and one of the best, equations.”

It was easy enough to address everyone when he was in the right mood, thankfully, and as long as he cast only a few aside glances to Tynan, who was still glaring at him. Still, the hardest part came in staring down Tynan and attaching together the last components of his plan. “You are right, Astrid. If the only reward was money, I wouldn’t have had the caring to bring any of you here. Valon believes that he, with my talents, can summon a simulacrum. In that event, I decided that we need a bodyguard to make sure that this entire operation proceeds smoothly and without significant bodily harm, with which our healer likely will not be able to help us. Specifically, Tynan, and for Valon, so that he doesn’t kill himself in the process. I believe that I am more capable of taking care of myself.”

“This is going to be fun,” grumbled Valon. Tynan didn’t appear too happy about it either, but his facial expression hardly ever changed, so that was hard to tell. Astrid was fuming, but had already begun to take a few of the herbs off the shelves and place them into a bag, as well as some of the tools of her trade that had been lying on the table. Valon had been able to guess quite accurately that she didn’t have much prowess at all anymore, thanks to her lack of effective magic, which had been a simple conclusion to make. However, the weapons slung on her back indicated that she could still defend herself. At least she wasn’t entirely useless.

The sharp note of a whistle blew through the air. Ziafar rolled up the map, placed it in his pocket, smiled, and prepared to open the door. “Now, keep close to each other, prepare yourselves as much as possible, and we might not die. To action!”
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.





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AstralHunter says...



Chapter 1d: Chasing the Devil

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It was worthwhile to remark, Tynan noted, that when Valon jumped from a caravan into the mud of the nearest jungle, he left left no face unsoiled. Zoey giggled and jumped down to help him up, but thought better of it halfway through the action and allowed him to slip back into the earthen embrace. The three remaining elves descended less dramatically and made sure to give their leader and his pool a reasonably wide berth.

"Do you have a specific location in mind," Astrid asked, addressing Ziafar, "or do we just wander around until the chimaera finds us?"

"You insult me, Astrid," he remarked and produced a compass and a map from his muddied pouch. "I happen to have come perfectly prepared with researched sightings of the beast and a means to get us to the loc-"

"FOOTPRINTS!"

"-ation." The elf sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Valon had set fire to himself to bake the mud off his clothing and strafed across to the set of footprints near a hodgepodge of unclaimed armor and weapons without owners. From his aura shot fireballs into each footprint to bake them in place. "We follow these, we'll find some action."

Tynan and the rest inspected the prints, and all but Tynan decompressed. "You idiot," Astrid groaned, "these are elven footprints! These would lead us to soldiers, not a chi-"

"Ahem." Tynan pointed to a line beside the prints. It was a singular trail decorated by droppings of a green venom, smouldering in the sunlight.

"How did I miss that...?"

Valon looked to Tynan, who moved his eyes in what could barely classify as a roll before the two took off in a brisk jog. They vanished into the underbrush, the sound of Valon's fireballs echoing behind them.

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"You don't need to follow me as if I were a child." Valon sidestepped to the left, dodging a puddle over which Tynan hopped.

"You are a child," he pointed out. "And you practically invited me to play tag."

"Then by all means, return to the adults."

"I can't babysit you from back there."

"You can't babysit me from the bureau either."

"Which is why I sent someone else to do it."

Valon glared at Tynan midstride. "You just can't stand the thought of letting me control my own life, can you?" When silence was his only answer, he sneered. "That's what I thought."

As obsessive and domineering as Valon's accusation sounded, he was right. Tynan couldn't allow his childhood friend to enjoy complete independence, but the inability was born of genuine concern, not selfish manipulation. Valon had proven time and again that those he befriended of his own accord led only to trouble. Even after the very first time they had met, Tynan had already sensed the older elf's propensity for mischief and waywardness.

Like almost everyone else, he was drawn to Valon's energy and charisma, but that was exactly the problem. He had quickly assigned himself the job of dispersing the cohort of ruffians and vagabonds with whom Valon had surrounded himself, as well as approving any future additions. It was a job Valon had, for the most part, not minded. After all, Tynan let himself be dragged into his friend's innumerable misadventures, if only to drag said friend back out when the situation turned awry. But occasionally, he would have to leave Valon's side, only to return later and find, much to his dismay, that another troublesome friend had landed the fire mage into hot water.

One such friend was an elfin called Lhene.

Strikingly beautiful and cunning as a vixen, she had Valon enthralled. A spark existed between Valon and every second elfin, but Lhene had spent enough time with him to let that spark ignite. As a result, Tynan could no more dampen their burning passion than he could put out a wildfire with a bucket. All he could do was accompany the two lovers to ensure no harm came to them. As time passed, they took ever increasing risks, resulting in several encounters that would have proven fatal if not for Tynan's vigil.

Astrid had by then become a trusted ally, but she was in another region entirely during the years Valon was with Lhene. Thus, Tynan had no-one else on whom to rely when it came to protecting his best friend. Had there been someone to advise him on the matter, he may have acted differently, but seeing as there wasn't, he had to do what he considered best.

Valon left on a lone, urgent quest one day, reassuring his friend and lover they had no cause for concern. Indeed, they did not, for he was back within a couple of days. A swift return, considering he'd expected to be away for about a week. If only he had... Upon arriving at his residence, he met Lhene in the doorway, possessions and broken spirit in hand. No amount of consolation could convince her to stay, so she didn't.

Tempers blazed and the resulting quarrel was undoubtedly the two's worst ever. Valon ordered Tynan to collect his things and leave too. As luck would have it, the Pontifex needed someone to round up the surviving members of the collapsed Fifth Eye sect, and Tynan was only too happy to oblige. How ironic and fitting that he would meet his replacement as Valon's caretaker during that hunt.

The Pontifex subsequently offered Tynan a job as guardian of the mana reserve. Being homeless and in need of funds to purchase his own residence, he naturally accepted. Regrettably, his luck did not last, for the drought occurred a month later. Now both homeless and jobless, he eeked out a living taking whichever jobs presented himself. He had expected to miss at least one of Valon's birthdays, but only a few months later, Ziafar contacted him, which ultimately led him to chase after his reckless friend once more.

It was good that Astrid resided in Espergale once again, even if not by choice, but despite himself, he hadn't expected yet another reckless soul to join the company. If Valon could recover from Lhene so easily, was there even hope for him at all? He would of course keep an eye on Zoey, but if push came to shove a second time, he'd have to take a more cautious approach. At least it wouldn't be only his decision that time.

Upon reaching a glade, Valon's sprint rolled to a gradual stop - as did Tynan's. Another carnage lay before them.

"We should wait for the rest to catch up," Tynan advised.

Valon made no response and inspected the poison trail leading away to their right, deeper into the jungle. Tynan shrugged and instead inspected the charred, broken corpses. Soldiers rarely carried anything of note, as a quick search confirmed, so he abandoned the endeavour and made towards a tree at the edge of the clearing. Leaning against it with arms crossed, he let Valon fume in his corner and kept watch for threats.

Their three companions were evidently lacking in fitness, for after a good while had passed, they were still alone. Valon grew tired of his aimless inspection and adopted a stance identical to Tynan's on the other side of the glade. Anger, clearly visible in spite of the distance between them, flickered behind his eyes.

"Why are you really here?"

Tynan remained impassive. "Ziafar's not a very good liar."

"He likes to think differently." Valon kicked a rock. "What did he dangle in front of your nose to make you come back?"

"He offered to cut me in on any misadventures you plan in the near future."

"Is your need to guard me that overpowering?"

"It wasn't in exchange for guarding you."

A frown. "Go on."

Tynan's phalanx of a gaze dropped to the baked clay beneath the bodies, then, almost in defiance of him, dropped to his own boots. "Sixty. Sixty simulacrum deviated from their path through the bureau because the forms had your name on them. Approved and shipped, but never delivered." He paused. "Fifty-nine. That's how many are still locked away."

A Flash and a rumble. The entirety of the jungle quivered.

"You... have access to my simulacrum."

"Until my full bureau clearance is revoked, yes." He turned his head up to see Valon smiling.

"Then I think," he said as the rain began to pelt them, "that I was wrong about you."

"How's that?"

"You can pr--"

"I've got a riddle," called Astrid from the clearing's break. "What do fire mages and footprints have in common? Zoey?"

The girl cut a flip in the air, landing in front of Valon with her finger on his nose as if to say gotcha! "They're both worthless in the rain!"

"Absolutely brutal," Astrid noted. "Ab-so-lute-ly brutal."

Tynan jostled as if to pull the final words from Valon's mouth, but knew he'd not say them in front of their party. Ziafar emerged beside him in a leisurely stride, umbrella in-hand forged from a monstrously large tomato vine.

"As much as I'd hate to admit that Valon's recklessness took us somewhere," Ziafar called, "Valon's recklessness took us somewhere." His middle finger adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "There is, according to the Glavi map, a cavern beneath this cliffside that, according to my copy of the Atlas of Tomato Jungle Exploration, Conservation, & Fine Dining, used to be utilized as a prison for times of war."

"And for us that means...?"

Tynan breathed a heavy sigh, already knowing the coming adventure. "It means, Zoey, that every devil has a den."

"And my bet," said Ziafar, "is that this chimaera is well-rested in the cavern below."

"So where's the entrance?" asked Astrid. "I see no cliff face or canyons. No caves."

Valon looked to Tynan, who nodded in agreement after a moment of silent consideration. The two hopped to the center of the clearing and began hauling the bodies and body parts away from the lowest part of the nesting site. Once clear, Valon stabbed a rapier into the northern- and southernmost point of the nest, creating a bowl of embers to weaken the soil and rocks below.

Astrid looked away from the spectacle in sudden curiosity. "Where's Tynan?"

A roar broke through the chatter as Tynan made a grand leap from the edge of the clearing, greatsword lunged downward into the aura of flame. The earth below groaned and heaved before caving in on itself, revealing, in a cloud of purple dust, the den below.

Tynan wiped his face clean with his sleeve and looked to Valon, nodding to the cave below. "Well?"

Zoey giggled and hopped over Valon's shoulders, shouting, "Betcha Lhene never did thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis!"

And down into the cavern she flew.

Image


"For mana's sake, Zoey!" Valon produced his aura and dove in after her, leaving Tynan, Astrid, and Ziafar peering at one another in slight worry.

"That," Astrid said, "is a fight for another day." The druid produced a vine that carried her down. Ziafar nodded, then followed her after handing Tynan his tomato vine umbrella.

Tynan sighed. Maybe he'd get lucky - maybe there'd be no chimaera at all. As he followed the vine into the dungeon below, a bellowing roar indicated otherwise.
But the Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
- Paul the Apostle

Spring has returned! Winter is over, and BrumalHunter is no more!





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Lumi says...



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Chapter 1E: Shackle Shackle


"Valon, can't that aura of yours burn any more brightly? I can scarce see the gloom on everyone's face."

"Well excuse me, princess for trying to save mana." Valon clenched his fists, his aura consuming several mushrooms nearby.

Ziafar sighed, waving smoke from his face. "Now you're just burning the locals. Zoey? A little Fayaden charm, yes?"

"Fine, but I'm taking thirty percent."

"Thirty percent of what?"

"Just thirty percent." She held out a hand and blew some dust into the air, releasing small lantern butterflies around them, each much brighter than Valon's aura. The old elf grumbled to himself and continued down the cavernway by light of butterfly as his fire petered out cinder by cinder.

Astrid didn't seem to mind the butterflies at all. In fact, she was smiling. "I'm reminded," she mused, "of a quest we undertook early on in our careers as ignoble adventurers together, Valon. The humans had colonized the coast of Astoria in the name of some goddess--what was her name?"

"Praetoria."

"Yessss, her. And they'd learned how to manifest her energy, but couldn't quite decide on a form. So invasion night came, and Tynan, you were sick for this part, I remember." She giggled. "And Valon, you had the idea to tell the colonists undercover that Praetoria was the goddess of butterflies!" Giggles overtook Astrid and Zoey.

Valon even stopped, having to submit to a grin. "All those petty humans ready to overtake Grand Astoria, and when the time came for war, they prayed for a butterfly. My greatest miracle to date."

Zoey stopped, finger to her chin. "But wait. If the humans did summon the butterfly, who killed it?"

The rest ahead of her began to cackle as Tynan approached, grumbling as he passed them. "That'd be Tynan, The Great Butterfly Slayer!" Astrid covered her mouth in a chortle. "It's recorded in the annals of history in the Library of Astoria!"

"I even have a book written on him," Ziafar noted. "Highly dramatic and romanticized, but somehow still accurate."

"Can it," cut Tynan, crouching against a wall.

"We're just having fun, Tynan. Calm--"

His eyes cut through Valon's sentence. "Enemies approach," he whispered.

Zoey clenched her fist, making her butterflies vanish. Astrid knelt by Tynan and felt the ground with slow breaths, her right hand in an open mudra. "There are eight sentinels staggered throughout the following halls, each carrying nothing but...vials? Alchemical vials. Of what, I can't be certain." She sniffed. "I smell worm--"

"Wormsblood," interrupted Valon. "Easy short-range explosive. A fireball," as he charged a fireball in his palm, launching into the corridor, "will send you bastards all to hell!"

The sentinels turned their heads just as Valon released his energy and saw, in the light, their lack of jaws, their lack of eyes. They were amalgams of human bodies, arms and ears and teeth of wolves, foxes, feral cats. His eyes flew wide as Tynan tackled him to the pit, the explosion rocking the cavern wholly, blast after blast after blast.

Image


When Valon came to, he groggily underwent what the Ashengale Knights had called a Body Check--wherein one ensures that each part of their body remains where it once was, and that it continues to function. From the toes up, reaching his knees, he nearly screamed. Lodged above his knee was shrapnel of his own swords. He gasped for putrid air and searched the lightless area for comrades. For life. For anyone or anything, and then, when he attempted to move from his place on the rocky floor, the chains binding him rattled over his swears.

"It's no use," called Tynan from the dark beyond. "Those 'sentinels' weren't carrying wormsblood concoctions. They weren't sentinels, and you're not a hero trapped in a dungeon."

Valon raised his bleeding head for a narrow gaze into the black. "Did the others escape?"

"Astrid's been sending weak seismic taps. I've tried replicating her signal, but I'm not a godsdamned druid."

He slowly rose to sit, his mangled leg outstretched so he could feel for the metal.

"I can feel that, though."

"How many pieces?"

"Six shards in a loose Y-assembly. Like someone with your handwriting did it." He paused for laughter. "Oh wait."

"Shut it." Mustering residual mana, he eminated a glow from his skin. "If I had more energy, I could cauterize the bleeding before it infects, but this shite has to get out of me now."

Tynan felt around on what little armor had been left on his body when the real sentinels had taken them to the holding cell. Still, he seemed luckier than Valon. "Do you have enough juice to smelt bronze?"

"It's bronze."

"Fair enough." Tynan slid his underclothes down until a small bronze strap was visible on his leg. He unfastened it and tossed it Valon's way. "One thing I'm guessing they taught us in the Vanguard you didn't catch in the Fire Knights: no one questions metal lingerie armor."

"A good lesson."

Valon crunched the twine of bronze in his hand and closed his eyes, imagining the forging of tweezers. Tiny medical tweezers.

When he opened his eyes, the tweezers were real. He cursed in happiness and began working on his knee, which brought more curses--let's be honest, most aimed at Ziafar for no reason other than not being in the room to do the cursing for him--and a woozy head; however, six pieces of shrapnel later, he cauterized the wound and got to work picking his chains.

"When we get out of here, you're gonna have to do the fighting. I'm completely tapped and ragged."

"And naked. Don't forget naked."

"I'm glowing and operating on myself. I think I noticed, Tynan. Thank you." His chains dropped, and he crawled to Tynan's feet, getting to work on the locks. Upon the last one, his fiery aura vanished with the last of his mana just with the final click!

Breathing heavily, Valon nodded. "Please get me to Astrid. I don't care how much lip she gives me. I just need some pai--"

--Tynan nerve chopped the back of Valon's neck, knocking him out. He hoisted the fire mage over his shoulders and grunted as he stood, peering around the unguarded corridor.

Image


"Zoey, I'm going to need you to put down the mushrooms and calm down. Those men are professionally-trained mercenaries." Ziafar pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily. "As much as I hate to admit it, together, they could slaughter a platoon of arcanists with a femur and a chicken wing--and the chicken wing would just be for food."

Zoey looked up from her mushroom stress eating with her butterflies and pouted up at Ziafar. "Are you certain?"

"Like it or not, I've seen it."

Zoey swallowed the last of her mushrooms and sat back on the cavern floor, drawing fae symbols on the ground that wrought more butterflies from whatever realm spawned them.

Astrid returned from the deeper cavern, nodding. "No answer, but I did feel two men moving deep within the den. All bets off? It's them. And one of them needs medical treatment now."

Ziafar nodded, thinking aloud. "Alright, so we know that the real Glavi mercenaries are reanimating corpses of their former allies and affixing them with explosives to deter mages from interfering with their...hiding? No, that can't be accurate. There were animals and chimaeras brought here. They must be experimenting with something."

Zoey looked up, worry in her deep green eyes. "I didn't want to say anything earlier, but there is a sickening life energy here...and every once in a while there'll be a hiccup of more. But just that. A hiccup. Like there's someone tampering with life energy."

Ziafar looked up to Astrid. "All bets off?"

"They're trying to make a chimaera." Astrid closed her eyes and exhaled as if communing with nature. "They're moving. They're coming here! Ziafar, get my supplies. Zoey, clear a space. Valon's so close to dead it's almost admirable that he did this to himself."

She dove into the lower cavern and met Tynan, hands already glowing green. "We have this figured out."

"Yeah, lady, so do I." He scoffed, dumping Valon's near-corpse on the ground as he climbed for the higher chamber. "I don't care about the reward. I'm out."

Astrid reached to grab him, but stopped, remembering the dying elf on the ground.

Ziafar walked with Astrid's supplies for the hole, stopping as Tynan passed. "You won't be compensated."

"I'll find other work."

"You won't receive the simulacrum."

"I've been told I've got a green thumb. Might try farming."

Ziafar turned, pushing his glasses up. "They're synthesizing life, Tynan. Reanimating fallen comrades. Those who had families. Brothers at home who have grieved already." He paused as Tynan slowed to a stop. "I think you may understand how upsetting that is."

Below, Astrid covered Valon's body with a blanket and placed a bundle of herbs under his head to expedite the healing. Zoey looked over her shoulder. "Will he...?"

"He's fine. Two hours and he'll be in better health than any of us." She moved hair from her face and nodded. "He has that way about him."

"Astrid."

She turned to look up. "Tynan, I thought--"

"Stay here and tend to Valon. Zoey, Ziafar, and I are going to...clean up."

"Clean...up?"

"Yeah," he said, pulling on a spare set of chain mail. "Something in this place smells like rotting eggs, and we can't have the devil's house smelling like rotting eggs."

Ziafar walked by him, staff in hand. "As ironic a sulfuric statement that is, I won't bother pointing it out becase the man has a point." He fixed his glasses. "We have some matters to tend to. Be ready with some herbs should things go south, yes?"

"Always."

Zoey skipped by with her butterflies, humming. ♫ We're gonna kill some guys, we're gonna kill some guys! ♫

Tynan buckled his robes together, sword sheathed at his back. "You're damned right we are."
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


I am the property of Rydia, please return me to her ship.





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Rydia says...



Chapter 1F: Don't wake the Living


While the others went to 'clean up', Astrid stood over Valon's unconscious body and wondered if he'd notice a few bruised ribs when he finally came to himself. Every time she entered Valon's company, they wound up in these situations of too many close calls and terrifying truths she was not ready to face and she just knew he'd spring back to his feet with a smile on his face. Like he always did. Like nothing could bring him down. That was both the most infuriating and the most endearing part of Valon's personality.

"Dead people, Valon. By the spirits, what have you gotten me into?" Astrid asked with a sigh as she sat on the ground and observed the fighting through the tremors in the Earth. She could feel her mana ebbing lower but it was such a gradual ebb and sensing things through the ground was as familiar to her as breathing so she was reluctant to cut it off. "Dead people walking." Astrid shook her head.

But don't you meddle with the dead from time to time? Since Valon was unconscious and couldn't respond himself, her head very helpfully decided to supply the responses it thought he might have given.

That's different. These things are... unnatural and besides, I've not been able to raise so much as a flea since the changing.

Maybe only people lost their mana.

Now that was a chilling thought and Astrid shivered in the cold, dank underground passage and had to remind herself that all artifacts and magic imbued plants had lost much of their power as well so it seemed unlikely that magical beasts had fared any better.

None of it made any sense. How could anyone raise so many dead people when there was hardly enough mana to boil a pan of water and why go to so much effort to create a chimera if there already was one? And wasn't one of the creatures terrorizing the area more than enough?

But what if there isn't a chimera? Valon's voice asked.

Ridiculous, what else would have killed all of those men and would be using a place like this as its lair?

Astrid frowned and the voice in her head laughed with Valon's laugh. Don't try to disagree with me, afterall, am I not yourself?

"This is stupid," Astrid mumbled aloud and she stood up and brushed the dirt off her hands and peered down the passage after the others. She could still sense the faint tremors from their bodies, moving deeper into the caverns but every time they encountered more of the undead, the same thing happened: a large burst of energy and then gone and only the echoes of Ziafar, Tynan and Zoey remained. Did every undead creature have an explosive strapped to their body and what were they so determined to keep hidden?

Why don't you go and help? This time the voice was hers but Astrid was clearly in a contrary mood because she found herself disagreeing with her own inclination: Tynan doesn't know. He might have heard the rumours and have some inkling but he would never approve of... meddling with the dead. I don't even know if I can do anything about them any more.

Astrid's body tensed before her conscious mind translated the message her body was trying to tell her: something was coming. More than one something: three figures were lumbering quickly in their direction so that soon she could hear them with her ears as well as her feet. They paused in the opening to the small chasm and Astrid eased the sabre from its hilt on her back and held it in front of her, ready. She would have preferred to cast a protective ring or to ensnare them with tree roots or better yet, to have run, but Valon's quiet form somewhere to her left meant she couldn't do that.

The undead were wrong. Unnatural. They had corporeal bodies which were very different to the spirits she normally dealt with and in fact this felt like a reverse of her own branch of necromancy: the husks of the individuals had been brought back with only a small residue of the souls which used to guide them.

"I'm on babysitting duty," Astrid explained casually to the trio who probably had enough cells to build one brain between them. "And babysitters don't fight except when someone looks like they're going to wake the baby. Then there's hell to pay. You don't want to see what happens when you wake the baby, trust me."
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TheSilverFox says...



Chapter 1G: Dead Man’s Folly


Somehow, in spite of Valon’s sheer idiocy (and lack of talent with fireballs), Ziafar was still alive. Valon? Barely. Either way, he was no healer, nor could he boast to have any knowledge on the topic. Thus, he was stuck with the stoic and Ms. Stabby as they made their way to purge whatever sick and twisted master of these dead creations had holed himself here, of all places. Regardless, the smell was dreadful, and he decided it would be better off fumigated. Forcefully.

He was disappointed. Clearly, Glavin had sought to murder him in the most convenient way possible, likely for the sake of these undead creatures formed from animal and human parts, and had failed miserably. If only because Ziafar was smart enough to run as swiftly as possible when Valon thought it would be a good idea to lob a fireball at them. Either way, he despised being backstabbed, although it now proposed a mystery. Zoey, in between dicing enemies with her knives, was directing them to what she made clear was energy fluctuations. Ziafar could feel the life energy burst outwards for a brief amount of time, and then dissipate. The master of these beings had to be tampering with life energy, and manipulating it in his own fashions. Fascinating – that wasn’t easy to do. The results were disgusting, and annoying to kill, on top of being quite explosive. But the individual at the center of this mess was skilled and adept.

It didn’t make any sense. There was barely any energy to come by these days. How could one person harness such an ability and ferocity? What were they draining energy from? What were to happen if their experiments were to…end? Would everything return to normal? He hoped as much, although he’d long ago learned to tamper with his hopes and dreams, lest they turn out to not be what he expected.

Zoey finished stabbing at an eyeless man with a wolf’s head, whereupon they ran back down the hallway as the body exploded in a burst of energy and blinding light. When the smoke cleared, they peeked back to see nothing but ash and a little gore. As such, with Zoey lighting up the entire corridor to indicate there was nothing else in the vicinity. They proceeded onwards. After a few seconds, rose her hand in a gesture to tell Tynan and Ziafar to stop. They exchanged curious glances as she pointed to a small metal door in the hallway. “The hiccups are coming from there,” she asserted.

Ziafar walked over to the door and pulled on the rudimentary doorknob. No luck. He pulled harder, but desisted from banging on the door and lose his element of surprise. The elf shrugged to his companions and took a step back, before Tynan had the sense to pulled out his broadsword, which scraped the low ceiling slightly, and jam it through the doorknob. There was a click, and Zoey gently pushed the door a couple of inches. Tynan grunted and heaved the sword out, and Ziafar swiftly kicked open the entrance to the room.

The interior space was an expansive room with a circular roof, partly held together by a collection of large wooden beams that suspended the earthen ceiling and walls in place, as well as metal plates that adorned the structure. Within was a procession of tables, vials with chemicals, beakers, lighters, and a wide variety of objects. It reminded Ziafar heavily of the book The Quintessential Eccentricities of the Mad Scientist, which he had confiscated earlier in his life from a member of the Fifth Eye who had been dispatched for her belief that she could command sheep to breathe fire. Now he was beginning to wonder if there was a collective set of literature about everything, and if everyone, at some point in their life, had borrowed from it.

In between the metal tables and upright stone blocks with ropes, and the few torture devices scattered around, there was a man. He looked plump, sickly, and frenetic. What little blonde hair of his still standing waved about as he hid behind a table and shouted, “What…what have you come here for? My experiments are done for the day, and I must rest. Begone!”

Ziafar sighed. He took a step forward as Zoey pulled out her daggers, and Tynan waved his sword menacingly. “Yes, you must rest. I should think forever is to your liking?”

The man peeked out from his space with murder in his eyes. “The General swore to me that my life would be protected. He said my services were far too valuable. I have risked more than I can possibly bear for this. If he is so quick to change his mind, I can do the same. Leave this place, and I will see you off unharmed.” The shift in his voice, from fearful to menacing, was odd and intimidating. Something was decidedly not right with this man, although you had to be far out there to reanimate the corpses of dead soldiers, fashion them into chimeras, and use them for battles. Still, something about that threat suggested that he was more than capable of making true his promise. Ziafar didn’t like it

It was then, of course, that Zoey squinted and flicked a dagger in the opponent’s direction. Ziafar swore and tried to grab her arm, but failed. Though the man acted quickly and ducked under the table, the dagger scraped the top of his head. He glared at them while wiping the blood off from his scalp, and growled. “So be it!” the man shouted. “I am the alchemist, and I am the necromancer. Try to fight me!”

He uttered a brief incantation. For a few seconds, nothing happened. And then, from the darkness and shadows, a massive number of silhouettes began to appear, as this person’s gruesome creations stepped into the faint torch light. The alchemist yanked vials from the table he was cowering under and flipped the table onto its side, so that its metal face - it had literally been inscribed with a screaming face - stared down at the trio. It was ineffective, mainly because they were already stunned and dismayed by the sheer number of creatures approaching.

Ziafar, true to his behavior, was the first to break free from this spell. As he observed the oncoming wave of slowly-moving chimeras and undead, he whispered to his companions. “You two, take out as many of them as possible. If they can explode – and I’m betting my life that they do – make as massive explosions as you can. I’m going to speak with this godsdamned alchemist and see if he will desist.”

Tynan looked at him, eyebrows raised, seriously regretting have been coaxed to come here. Ziafar shot back with a stern glare, grasped Tynan’s shoulder and gestured to the partly open door. “If you wish,” the latter mumbled, “you may leave. There is the distinct possibility that, if we lose, they’ll come for Valon next.” After a few tense seconds, Tynan nodded and stepped forward with his sword, pulling free from Ziafar’s grip in the process. Zoey jumped up in joy and made her way towards one gathering of the undead, dagger in hand, while Tynan rushed another group.

“Do you have any shame?” called out Ziafar as a loud boom emanated to his right. Tynan broke free from a cloud of smoke and flames, coughing, but otherwise alright. “To take the bodies of the dead from their grieving families and make these…creatures? Fakes? Beasts?” Smaller explosions echoed from the left as Zoey struck at her foes.

The alchemist gasped as he inhaled smoke, but chucked a jar of green liquid at the elf. Ziafar dodged, and watched as the vial struck the ground and began to eat at the stone. “They told me,” the necromancer responded, “That I could be a hero. That I could win this war. Do you think I wished to turn the people I had fought with, my companions and conspirators, into these forms?”

The elf scowled and muttered an incantation, summoning his Ruin Sphere and lobbing it through more clouds of smoke. Ziafar heard a satisfying groan in response, but realized it was also coming from the wooden beams. Pieces of dirt were beginning to fall from the ceiling and roof as the makeshift support structure took a beating. Now he had something else to keep on eye on, in between getting attacked by more acid bottles. If worst came to worst, and the whole area collapsed, he would have to call out for his allies to run, and all three of them to exit as quickly as possible. He wasn’t sure if they would have enough time for that, but it wasn’t as though they could turn back now.

“They had my daughter,” said the necromancer in desperation. “They were going to kill her, force me to experiment on her. And then they showed me the bodies of my dead friends and companions, killed in battle. I felt obliged to help.”

The fumes in the room were growing more noxious. Ziafar could distantly see Tynan suddenly become much stronger and more ferocious, slicing through enemies with his intimidating broadsword. That had to be draining him, and who knows how long that sudden burst of strength and health would last. Zoey stumbled close by him. In between the smoke and interplay of light and shadows, she appeared bruised and bloody, though she kept on smiling. It was then that one of the creatures dashed past her, knocking her aside, and tried to stab Ziafar. The elf swiftly threw a blast of Ruin Energy at its head, which forced the creature back in agony. However, it was able to stab one of the elf’s arms, forcing Ziafar to cradle the wounded arm. “Did it ever occur to you that perhaps they killed your friends? Or that you did? Why did you never start a revolt?”

As the trio clustered together again, slowly repulsed by the oncoming procession of troops, the necromancer laughed. “I saw absolution,” he breathed. “I…I could make new life. I could use the energy of this place and remake these men into something that could live again. Not entirely alive, but it was enough. And they were stronger, swifter, better. That made up for their deaths, though they were soon sent to me alive, and to die by my hand…”

Ziafar barked a quick incantation, watching as a stream of energy poured from him and formed a massive sphere around him and his allies. The enemies were thrown back and scattered, some of the most heavily injured ones exploding and enshrouding the barrier in smoke. Those fumes had been driven out from the sphere itself, which allowed the group inside to breathe and observe their surroundings clearly. Zoey’s mana formed in a blue outline of her body, and those around her watched as their cuts began to heal, if only slightly. Ziafar was lucky that his arm injury wasn’t that significant, though it bled heavily, and watched as the energy began to patch him up. The cut grew shallower and started to fade into a scar. Then, of course, the sphere collapsed, and the creatures made to charge again.

“They gave me praise. The General loved me and my efforts. He told me to go one step further. To embrace this madness and harness the powers of this place so that I might create one, ultimate being.” He wheezed and coughed as Ziafar alternated between conjuring Ruin Spheres and Barriers (two of each). It was clear that the necromancer was being battered by the attacks and noxious odors. In the meantime, his soldiers found themselves dazed and confused, which made them easy prey for Tynan to strike them down with his broadsword. Instead of going backwards, due to the explosions, Ziafar took a few steps closer. His allies proceeded him as the tired and sweating elf worked to make a path towards the necromancer. Zoey’s mana energy desisted, yet her boundless energy and her lack of significant injuries kept her in the battle.

By now, the alchemist had given up throwing vials. He had surrounded himself with a series of metal tables that effectively acted as blastproof. Now he was conjuring strange beams of dark energy through incantations, shooting them towards where he presumed the trio to be. Of course, the smoke proved to make his aim poor, and he was more liable to destroy one of his creations, which only added to the chaos. Those said creations had also diminished significantly in number, and no longer had the force to gang up on Ziafar and his companions. In spite of that, the alchemist cackled. “I will not desist! I had thought so many times, that it would be nice to kill the General, end these fools. They had forced me into these bloody deeds, ruined my life. But I was awed by my own handiwork. How could I give up, now that I was on the cusp of my greatest inventions, with all the resources I needed at my disposal? My beginnings of my final creation arrived with devotion to me, and I had to make sure that the result was as large, dangerous, and strong as possible. It had to be glorious!”

Ziafar was not exactly interested in hearing what this final creation was, nor the prospect of this man’s activating it. The alchemist had to go. Another blast of energy zoomed past him as he vaulted over the metal table and conjured his shield, which flew outward and knocked his opponent against the opposite metal table, sending both sliding along the floor. Zoe followed him, and her dagger soared through the briefly cleared air into the alchemist’s stomach. The man groaned as the party marched over to him.

“Your timing…” wheezed the alchemist as the life bled out of him, “…is wonderful, but unfortunate. It is done. Isn’t she…beautiful?”

A few nervous glances were exchanged among the battered and bleeding group as the alchemist died. Ziafar continued to nurse his arm, the scar upon it threatening to break again if pushed, and stared up. Many of the beams had been heavily damaged; this place was liable to collapse soon. If they could not make it to the door in time, they were likely going to be buried alive in this place. Not a comforting thought. At least the smoke was dissipating, and whatever creatures were left had retreated to the shadows with the final gasp of their master. Zoe pulled the dagger out of the alchemist’s limp body.

Then came the sound of a door being closed, and a long, loud raspy sound that emanated through the room.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.





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Lumi says...



Chapter 1H: The Strangest Dream


It didn't come but one day per year: the time when the snowstorms of Howlengale shifted southward into the valley below and gave breath to the sun; and the sun, that glorious, furious symbol of endurance and power, gave breath to the Ceremony of Fire Knights.

And it was Valon's prime day.

Futzing with the elf's broach was Tynan, who was nearly bursting at the brim with vim and vigor when Valon couldn't. Stone-faced. Enduring and stoic as the sun itself. The Fire Knights were no laughing matter when it came to emotional brevity.

"I'm just so proud," he said, fighting to get one last wrestle out of the uniform. "How do you feel? Being honest?"

Valon nodded, shifting his eyes from one edge of the pagoda to the other, his boots crunching in snow. "If I'm being honest...I could use a drink."

"Not that honest."

"A girl on my arm?"

"Realistically honest."

He grinned. "I couldn't be happier, brother."

The ceremony lasted for hours, as it did each year, and Valon, being the head of his class in the Howlengale Scholasticate, was honored last with the commendation of the Fire Lord.

It's an insufferable pity how far that bright star fell.

"You'll be next, you know." Valon downed his wine as he and Tynan sat together--yet alone--in an inn to celebrate Valon's triumph.

"Next for what, exactly?"

"You know," waving a cut of steak with his fork, "acing courses, showing up the other lads in physicals and practicals. You're next."

Tynan slowly nodded, but kept to his steak. "I've been thinking about that, actually." There was a lull as Valon looked him over curiously.

"What's there to think about? Sure, you skip a few leg days here and there, but you make up for it in upper body strength. The Fire Knights would be happy to--"

"That's just it, Val."

He swallowed.

"I've been offered a scholarship to the Templar Knights."

Image


Valon woke with a weak startle, and when he attempted to sit up, dirtied hands pushed his chest back down to the ground - hard. He let out a long, agonized sigh as wordless memories came flooding in by the cluster. Even though he yet lived, he could feel himself weakening from blood loss, likely a concussion, from the lacerations, the cauterized wound. He sucked in on his teeth. "Astrid, can't you do something about this bloody sadist of a god drilling into my guts?"

"Sweetheart, as potent as your metaphor is, that's just the blanket. Literally nothing else."

His eyes turned to her, wide and desperate and wholly agonized. "I've seen you raise nigh upon a whole platoon from the brink of death, Astrid." He gripped her hand. "Please."

She pursed her lips. "The necromagic is lifted from this place, so in theory I could...but I simply don't have the mana remaining." She shook her head. "We'll have to wait for the herbs to do their thing."

Valon gripped at one of his elongated elven ears and ripped an earring out, palming the crystal into her hand. "That's quite literally the last mana crystal I know to exist, so please don't waste it on a rabbit."

"You know me so well," she crooned.

"And please," he begged as she activated the crystal in her palm, "for gods' sakes don't tell Tynan I had a real one."

Astrid clapped her hands together as green light pooled around them. "One verdant body scan and a lifetime of secrecy, coming right up."
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


I am the property of Rydia, please return me to her ship.





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Rydia says...



Chapter 1I: Pride Comes Before a Fall


Maybe the mana crystal was particularly potent or, more likely, she'd simply been starved of this feeling for too long and Astrid was overtaken by a brief giddiness at the rush of mana skidding out to her extremities; tingling fingers; a burst of echo-images of the caverns around them and plants, so many buzzing, beautiful auras of living things in cracks in the walls and spread out like a warm (if slightly frayed) blanket on the ground above them. Astrid clapped her hands and tapped into these auras, a green glow quickly encasing her skin as she extracted what she needed.

It was almost sad to let the energy go. She didn't need it, she could actually think of a whole heap of people who needed it more than Valon in fact but taking his magic to give to someone else would have felt wrong, even to her. Even if it would serve him right to have to recover the long way around for once with lots of bed rest and lukewarm soup and-

"What - Earth to Astrid? In case you hadn't realised, this still hurts. A lot. And that's a scary smile; if it was anyone else about to perform life magic on me, I'd be ready to crawl out of my own skin to get away."

"Valon, you really don't want to screw with my concentration right now." Astrid scowled but she began to push the life-force in his direction anyway, carefully toting it out to the places with the worst wounds. Mostly the knee, how in blazes had he shredded every millimeter of tendons?

"Come on, I've seen you cast that spell with an ogre breathing down your neck," Valon retorted.

"But you're not half as pretty and twice as annoying."

"Ouch." Valon winced and then sprung lightly to his feet and started to test his weight on the leg. Astrid raised a brow, surprised he put enough faith in her work to not test the knee first and then get up.

"No more boo boos. If I have to heal you a second time today, Tynan's going to wonder where I got all the mana from."

"A lifetime of secrecy, remember."

"And it's yours, I'll just tell him I've got enough mana in my left pinky to fix someone as simple as you."

Valon raised a finger in objection and then shrugged it off with a grin. "He'll buy it."

Astrid snorted and shook her head but she didn't disagree. She had done remarkably well without tapping even a third of the mana reserves the crystal had given her.

"So, where's the fun at?" Valon rubbed his hands together and started for the open passage, almost falling over the trio of corpses in the way. Real corpses now with holes where important body parts should have been after Astrid's saber redeemed them of their heads. Valon did a double take and Astrid couldn't help smiling as he looked from them to her.

"I reckon you've missed most of it."

"Scary. Just scary. This way?"

Astrid nodded and strode up alongside him, occasionally pointing or holding her arm out to keep them on course. Her thoughts wandered elsewhere as she recalled the first time she'd brought someone back from the brink of death. With Valon, it had become almost normal, but there had been a time when she hadn't even thought herself capable of that.


"Gregor, what about this one?" Astrid swayed on the heels of her feet as she hugged the mass of clean bandages and bottles of antiseptic to her chest. Gregor peeled back the young man's eyelid and then let it fall again and shook his head.

"How can you tell?" Astrid hissed. "Just by looking at their eyes?"

"The ones who've got enough in them to fight, they'll look back at you. Never forget that."

Astrid nodded but she didn't really understand. She stepped toward the next bed and then let out a sharp squeal and dropped everything as a hand latched on to her arm and she found herself staring into the wide eyes of a boy not much older than her.

"Please." He spluttered and a thin trail of blood gurgled from the corner of his mouth.

"Gregor!"

The healer moved at the slow pace of the weary and gently took the boy's hand away from her arm and tucked it back into the bed with him. Astrid prepared herself for another lesson but Gregor gave the tiniest shake of his head and started away.

"But-"

"No, Astrid."

"But he looked at me and you said-"

"I said no!" Gregor snapped. Astrid's lower lip began to wobble and the ageing healer sighed and shook his head. "Gaia, Astrid. I can save five others with what it would take to have a chance of saving him."

Astrid looked away to hide her tears but it was another lesson she couldn't understand. How did you choose? They'd been fighting the plague in this town for weeks now and Gregor's ability to weigh the cost of a life in just a few seconds was terrifying but it felt like his conditions and rules were always changing. Astrid wanted to argue that on the first day he'd saved people like this and the elderly, who now seemed to be against the rules, so why not one more boy - just one - one boy who looked at her. She closed her eyes but she could still feel him watching her.

Gregor's sigh was hot and heavy on the back of her neck as his hands took hers from behind and he positioned them over the boy's chest. "I'd always meant your first time to be a rabbit. This is going to be a lot more complicated."

"What, me? But I don't know how."

"Of course you do, you've done it before."

Astrid breathed in sharply and thought frantically of the dead rabbit in the woods and how she'd just meant to nudge it, just to see, and then there it was, spectral, but moving, scampering around the trees like, like- "I- I-"Astrid didn't know what to say. Necromancy was wrong. People were always saying that but it felt the same to her and if Gregor was suggesting that she'd done this before, then maybe they were the same.

"How else do you think you, not much more than a baby survived the plague that took your parents?"

Astrid blinked. She'd never thought about it before, or perhaps she'd always assumed that had been Gregor but now she felt a sudden burst of pride and wonder and she looked at the boy in front of her with renewed determination.

"What do I do?"

"Harness the life-force of the nearby plants, like we've practiced. Then find the plague spores and pull them out, mending the broken cells as you do. You'll need to scan him thoroughly, not just a little bit like when we're fixing bones, but everywhere, cell by cell."

Astrid nodded and focused on her breathing, then on the plants and then on him. So much of druid magic was about focus and concentration and she had to block out all the sounds around them - the coughing, the drip-drop of the leaky faucet in the next room over and even the voice of Gregor once he'd finished his instruction. She pushed all of it away and then she found them: hundreds of burning, tearing particles ricocheting from cell to cell like a line of dominoes. Astrid caught her breath as she suddenly understood that the boy didn't stand a chance.

"It's okay," Gregor murmured softly. I just wanted you to see. Now try fixing some of them, it's good practice-"

Astrid could hear the unsaid words in his voice. Practice. This wasn't the real thing because the reality was she couldn't save him. The small girl fought back her tears as she forced herself not to think about it and fixed a cell. And another one. And another and another and another and another and-

"Astrid!"

Gregor's voice was so far away as Astrid fixed cell after cell after cell and realised how different this was to what she did with the rabbit. Putting life into the rabbit had felt like pushing against a vacuum of still air but as she opened the line to the boy, she only had to prod the life-force in his direction and then his cells latched on greedily and pulled. They gave no thought to what the force should be used for and she had to fight to keep enough out of its grasp to focus on the disease. The boy's cells wanted to build muscle and to create anti-bodies and any number of useless, surplus tasks that were already failing to keep him alive and they wanted her power to do it But more than her power. They wanted her life, they were pulling on her life, but she was so close, she could feel the last slither of disease trying to burrow into his gut and she had it, she had-

Astrid suddenly felt a wall slam between her and the boy and she stumbled back, falling heavily against the next occupied bed. Her head swum with dizziness and there was a harsh dryness to her throat and an aching, pounding through all of her body, like she'd run a marathon for days with no sleep. Gregor was panting hard and his eyes were wide as he looked at her.

"Gaia," he mumbled. "Gaia, what were you thinking?"

"I did it," Astrid realised, her mind suddenly flickering back to that last, triumphant moment.


"Gaia," Astrid breathed as she snapped back to the present. "They're just down the left passage, but- the door closed. And there's something in there. With them."

"Stay back, it's time to let the door exterminator do this thing." Valor stretched his arms in front of him.

"Wait- carefully!" Astrid insisted. "That cavern feels like it could collapse at any moment. With our friends inside."

"Right, one humane door extermination coming up."
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AstralHunter says...



Chapter 1J: Valon Comes Before a Fall


"Please tell me it was one of you two who made that gross rasping noise," Zoey said, too frightened and disgusted to look behind her.

"Regrettably, it wasn't," Ziafar replied. He gave Tynan a nervous glance. "Do you mind checking if the alchemist's 'glorious' creation is standing behind us?"

Tynan slowly turned his head and cringed. "Supposing I said yes, would you have enough magic for a final confrontation?"

Ziafar shook his head. "I barely have enough magic to keep this laceration sealed." He tenderly touched the wound. "Is it really that bad, though?"

Tynan held the chimera's gaze, fearful that if he looked away or made any sudden movements, it would attack. "Yes, it's that bad. If you think the chimera we came here to kill is dangerous, then this one is a pretty big concern."

The other elf scoffed and turned around. "Oh please, it can't possibly be that-" He gasped. "By the gods, never mind. Zoey, turn around."

They couldn't see if she looked, but her suppressed scream made sure they could hear she did. The creature in front of them... it could be described as nothing but unholy. It stood as tall as the ceiling and would have been longer if it had more room. The head and torso belonged to what Tynan guessed had been the alchemist's daughter, but it was a far cry from being recognised as elven any longer. The eyes were replaced with those of a cat, and if they truly were a reflection of the soul, only torment and malice remained. The teeth had been filed down to become fangs, and the nose was entirely flattened, two slits having taken over the purpose of olfactory organ. What was formerly locks of glossy black hair hung in mangy braids, bits and pieces of gore and bone sticking out of it.

The torso seemed to have been enlarged, since grey hide covered it starting below the neck. It hung loosely, like it had been made a size too large. Moving further downward, a large, horizontal, almost lizard-like body stretched back against the door. The same grey hide covered it, all the way down to the feet - if they could be called that. The creature had eight limbs, of which only one pair of arms were not used for walking. How they supported its heavy, grotesque frame was beyond him, but it did. The hideous creature had a red scorpion tail too, evidently an idea borrowed from the original chimera.

They only had about a second to recoil at the abomination's hideous form before, provoked by Zoey's scream, it brought forth a grating scream and spewed a stream of noxious green liquid at them. Tynan hid behind his shield, eyes watering at the stench, while Ziafar produced a magical barrier.

"I'm officially out of magic," the elf weezed, bent double.

Their doom seemed certain, but much to their relief, Valon happened. Hearing Zoey's cry must have spurred him into action, for the door burst away from its hinges, the splinters flying from it piercing the chimera's hide. The creature screeched in pain, but more worrying was the ceiling's protests. Dust and gravel began to sift down as cracks appeared in the unstable rock.

"Run!" Tynan called, coughing and giving the other two elves a helping push as they dashed past him. He picked up a rock and chucked it at the chimera's head, giving them time to escape. He then charged, shield raised, at the filthy beast. It effortlessly batted him aside with its powerful tail, smashing him into a wall. He gasped for breath and crawled towards the doorway.

He was certain he would be eaten, but Valon stepped inside, tossed a fireball at the thing, and helped his friend to his legs, stumbling outside. Ziafar ran past them for reasons unrevealed until Valon dropped Tynan to the floor outside. The other mage returned, broken door in hand, and attempted to jam it into the entrance.

"No, what are you doing?!"

Valon tried to tackle Ziafar out of the way and get back inside the cavern, but the ceiling gave way, stacking boulders against the flimsy barricade. Astrid dragged Tynan out of the way of the rocks that spilled out into the corridor.

When the cavern grew quiet and the dust settled, Tynan pushed himself to his feet. A dejected Valon knelt beside the blocked entrance. "But the simulacrum..."

Zoey slapped him. "That thing would have killed us all if you hadn't dropped the ceiling on it. Be glad it's dead."

"Actually, we don't know that," Ziafar pointed out, ever the realist. "I noticed the ceiling collapsing mostly our way, possibly leaving the other half open. The chimera could still be alive."

"Could you lot just shut up for a moment," Tynan barked, leaning against the wall.

The surprised elves obliged, though not without much sulking. Astrid peeled off his armour and gingerly inspected his chest and back. She gave a satisfied nod and allowed gestured to the steel.

"Miraculously, your armour prevented any major injuries. You're heavily bruised and exhausted, but otherwise fine."

"That's a relief. I see you fully mended Valon's leg," he said, nodding at the concerned individual. "How'd you manage that?"

Astrid exchanged a meaningful glance with the fire mage before shrugging. "I'm a damned good healer."

Suspicious but in no mood to dispute her claim, he just nodded again. After a couple more seconds of oppressive silence passed, he announced, "I'm sick of this cesspit and to hell with anyone who plans on stopping me." He deliberately glared at Ziafar. "You can say what you like, you bastard, but no further promises of reward or attempts at appealling to my honour are going to keep me here. If you think you can take on the real chimera without any mana, you can bloody well go ahead, but if you want an escort out of here, you abandon your misguided sense of duty right now and follow me."

He didn't wait for a reply; he didn't need to. As soon as he headed back down the corridor whence they had come, the others fell in line. Zoey, her zeal apparently restored, skipped past and scouted the corridors ahead.

"That monster reeked a lot more than just rotten eggs," Astrid ventured, trying to break the sour mood.

He grunted. "The only thing that could possibly compare to its unbelievable stench is the sewage complex of Avridor. It has to be the greatest and foulest smelling maze in the world."

"I've read about that place," Ziafar said. "If it smelled anything like that thing back there, though, I can't see how you possibly slew the Avridorian Megalosuchus."

Tynan laughed - a short and curt but amused sound. "Oh, you know the story, do you?"

"Everybody knows the story," Valon answered bitterly.

Tynan grinned. A few decades ago, he had heard reports of a massive crocodillian dwelling beneath Avridor, so he travelled to the city and offered to investigate the matter. He had thought it a hoax and expected a smaller creature to be responsible for the sightings, so great was his surprise when he discovered there was a twelve metre long reptile in the gutters. His version of the events that followed was rarely believed, so many variations existed, but he firmly stood by his account.

After tracking the Megalosuchus' movements through the labyrinth for a week and consulting all sources available on the monster, he crafted a strategy that allowed him to take it down single-handedly. There was no logical explanation for its presence in the sewers, though, so he investigated the issue further, against the wishes of the city's officials. It turned out the great crocodile had played an unwitting role in a conspiracy that had been in the making for centuries, which Tynan naturally exposed in a spectacular fashion, earning adoration and a fabulous bounty from the locals.

"Of course everybody knows the story, you idiot," Ziafar responded contemptuously. "Even if they haven't heard the full tale itself, they're bound to have heard the urban myths of crocodiles in the sewers that it inspired." He frowned. "Come to think of it, why is it Tynan always who features in these stories and never you, Valon?"

Whatever Valon replied was lost in the deafening roar that came from the corridor ahead and to the right. He shoved them aside and pelted towards the noise.

"Zoey!"
But the Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
- Paul the Apostle

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Lumi says...



Chapter 1K: Disposable Chimeras With Flash Turned On


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To recap what seemed to happen in an instant, for the following battle seems as an instant to Valon, with the adrenaline and pain mixed to form a sort of superpower he'd not felt before; a draconic head, lengthy, scaly, dripping venom, crowned with a comb of scarlet crests from head to basin, pierced through the den wall and, in an instant, wrapped around Zoey, shirking her into the blackness of the nether below.

Now, let it be known that Valon had, in his randy youth, read enough exotic literature to understand the numerous outcomes of this scenario, and would have none of them.

Let it be known that Tynan, valorous and noble, though wounded and tired, knew a true ally when he found one, and refusing to relinquish a stout ally without a fight, would have none of the possible outcomes.

Let it be known that Ziafar, gravely wounded, felt his ambitious heart pounding.

Let it be known that Astrid felt overcome with rage as jealous as the grave.

All of this came in an instant, as the elves dove into the devil's den after Zoey. The enormous presence before them was unyielding and hungry. It was unnatural.

Valon closed his eyes to take in the deep, numerous growls and roars of the chimera--but something caught his nose. To his left, right, flanks, rear, and far before him.

The smell of oil.

Gathering a hoard of mana, he unleashed a flurry of fireballs around them like fireworks in the night sky. As they landed, the circle around the den lit aflame, including the oily pitch stuck to the chimera's backside. Finally able to see, Valon admittedly felt intimidated. But he stepped forward all the same, fireball forming in his hand.

"Hi there...big guy."

The injured Ziafar gazed about the room, noting barrels of untapped oil in clusters. The Alchemist must've put them there as a safeguard in case his creations went rogue. He glanced to the chimera to find Zoey and located her energy traces on a cliff face up above. At least she was safe there...for the time being. And still breathing, at that.

"Valon? We have lots of oil."

"I have lots of fire."

Tynan grinned. "And I have plenty of body left to keep him busy."

Astrid stomped her foot. "And I guess I have to be a badass for all of you!"

"YES!" they all demanded.

She rolled her eyes. "Fine, Official Badass it is, then."

Tynan drew his greatsword and readied for the run in alongside Valon, who brandished his one remaining rapier. He grinned. "I understand your plan now, brother."

Valon tied his ponytail back and smirked. "You give me too much credit. Since when have my plans ever worked out?"

Eyes closed, Tynan nodded. "I have a good feeling about this one."

"AAAAAND GO!" Ziafar launched a barrel of oil at the Chimera with a wave of gravity as the two men charged ahead. Splashed with oil, with fire, bashed with steel and magic, the chimera lashed back with mighty magical attacks.

Tynan and Valon leaped back to avoid a breath of fire, both panting. "Ziafar, a reading please?"

"Compared to his power from before...he's going down very slowly."

Astrid peered up at Zoey on the wall and then to Ziafar beside her. "Launch me."

Valon dodged a ball of lightning and danced around the sparks at his feet.

"Launch you?!"

Tynan parried a fireball with his sword and swung for the chimera's feet before running out again.

"Launch me to her! I have a plan!"

The head of poison spewed a toxic goo at the boys' feet. They rolled out of the way.

"F-fine!" Ziafar aimed his staff at Astrid and swung it towards the cliff face with Zoey, watching her fly through the air, landing face-first in a pile of bones.

"Okay, little fairy. You're going to end this for us." Astrid tied her hair back and channeled as much druidic attunement as she could in this dreaded place into her connection with Zoey and found that only her consciousness had been taken out. A sudden burst of energy. A sudden shock--wait! She didn't need magic for that. In her bag, she dug around for her smellingsalts, retrieving a small liquid capsule that she held to Zoey's nose. It snapped, the liquid turned to vapor, and the girl screamed into consciousness. Astrid grabbed her by the arms. "Listen to me. Take your daggers and cut off one of the heads of that damned thing. I think one of them is regenerating the wounds it takes in."

"Oh, most definitely. Did you see that one head stretch to grab me? Only creatures with regenerative powers can manipulate their cells like tha--"

Astrid readied another smellingsalt.

"FINE." Zoey grabbed her daggers and readied a leap. "I like the fire. I like the fire a lot, you guys. Totally doesn't make this place look like hell at all. Not at all."

"Thanks!" called Valon as he dodged a bite that ripped his robe's sleeve off.

Zoey dived below onto the poison snake head of the chimera, daggers slicing through the flesh like butter. She made an acrobatic circle before pulling her blades together, making a larger blade of fairy light and--SWOOP--off came the head.

The chimera swerved and roared, tumbled, and fell; and Valon, having given up on the Simulacrum, watched happily as the beast's body disintegrated into the flames slowly consuming it.

Valon stabbed his blade into the dirt beneath him and plopped onto the ground to rest. Tynan did the same. Without giving thought to old habits, the two found themselves back-to-back so they could rest without being vulnerable.

Ziafar smiled to Zoey and Astrid as she finished her climb down. "They really are like brothers, aren't they?"

Astrid scoffed. "Darling, they're not like brothers." She shook her head. "They're brothers. Did Valon not tell you that?"

Ziafar looked a bit befuddled. "But, I--I handle his filing. I know his lineage. His next of kin in case of an incident is legally--"

Astrid put a finger to his lips. "I'll explain more later, just. Just enjoy the peace and love."

Zoey sat on an oil barrel, watching the two. "We really need to get back to Espergale. It feels like we've been in here for months."

"I've been thinking," said Valon.

"Mm?"

"The stuff Glavin did down here violates about eighteen statutes of the Espergale convention."

"I don't think we have a case with the mana drought going on."

"That's my plan, though." Valon laid his head back against Tynan's. "We present our evidence to the Espergale Justices for visas to leave the country. And we find ways to sustain ourselves through the drought."

"We could start somewhere that doesn't require a visa while we wait on the paperwork..."

"Like Silverlake."

"Or Zhaelle."

"I haven't been there since the Vampire Queen took over."

"It could be good fun."

"We should go home first. Get supplies. File our case. Get new gear."

"Home." Tynan nearly hummed the word.

-Fin-


"Oh, Valon?"

"Yes, Tynan?"

"You left this behind in the den."
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


I am the property of Rydia, please return me to her ship.





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Lumi says...



phpBB [media]


Chapter Two: Home

Chapter 2A: Visa Law, Your Majordomo, And You


After returning home from the Glavin jungle, Valon had insisted on a respite comprised of no more than five days before their next meet, but no fewer than four.

To be honest, no one had questioned it.

On the first day, everyone slept and sought after chirurgeon aid. Valon spent long hours meditating with the simulacrum Tynan had snuck out under his nose. No one had asked to see the spell yet, and...again, to be honest, Valon wasn't quite sure how to use it.

He glanced into the parlor where Ziafar was at work on their visa case already. The studious majordomo would know the answer by just the pip of a question, but pride. Valon stowed the small gem in his satchel and joined his bookkeeper at the desk.

"I don't have spare tea to go around, Valon."

"This isn't about tea, you presumtuous twa--"

"There's tea in the cupboard, alphabetized."

Valon sighed and retreated to the tea cabinets--not because Ziafar was right, but because tea did sound delicious--and because he needed to keep his hands busy (and always did) while he thought. "So, will we start our appeal with the dismantling of Glavin's black-site military practices in border territory, cite the Espergale Convention, or give witness testimony to case precedent for the Pontifex Statute on abominations and necromancy?" Mouth full of a cookie, he nodded. "I fink if we start wif the--" swallow "--classic case of the trifecta, we could actually drill into Glavin for some major results."

Ziafar, in all of this, had sloooowly reached for his staff, assuming his master an imposter. Seeing him battle-ready, Valon giggled. "How do you possibly know so much about Espergale legal counsel?"

Valon pointed a finger gun at the big-ass library surrounding them. "Before I hired you--because I really did need a you--who do you think read all these books?"

"That..." Ziafar swiftly looked off into Valon's chambers, dumbfounded. "That certainly makes much more sense than previous theories."

"So what do you think? Start with the abominations? The big ol' snake lady? That dude you said brought the house down? He would've been a good witness."

Ziafar shook his head. "It will take thought, Valon." He snapped his fingers. "In the meantime, this came for you in the post today."

Tynan, Astrid and Zoey hopped out of a carriage outside. Zoey was whistling the national anthem of Howlengale off-tune.

"Ziafar."

"Yes, Valon?"

"When I hired you, I showed you a crest never to allow in this house."

Ziafar perked up. So did the others.

Tynan grinned. "Did Ziafar let in a love letter from one of your darling exes?"

Valon's face grew pallid as he turned the envelope around. "It's from father."

Image


My Fire, My Shield,

I write to you in what I know are dire times in Espergale. Why, I must imagine the mosquitos alone must keep you awake at night dreadfully so. As I have contemplated overmuch the mana drought, I believe I have concocted a plan that could benefit our house and give rise to our name in the nobility once more. I will give caution, however, as a dread winter has befallen all of Silverlake--which is precisely why I wish for you to come. I'm certain you have heard of the Lady of the Lake, yes? An old fairy tale, a myth. Yet in my old age, I have found that all mighty things are myths until they are not. Come to me. Come reminisce about my hearth, and here we will decide our course of action. Bring this letter to the checkpoint between the nations, and a highly trusted dragoon will guide you through Silverlake.
With my honor,
Alunis Balessan


Image


"So," cut Valon, "who else feels like heading to Zhaelle?"

Astrid grabbed one of Valon's rapiers from the doorside and brandished it before her, tip at his nose. "You. No more whining around us. Why are you avoiding your father?"

"He cut him off," Tynan interjected from the corner with a sigh. "He cut us both off." His head turned so he looked at Astrid. "Valon wasn't exactly a creature of good habits, and father didn't trust him with the family money."

Zoey raised an eyebrow. "But you're, like, Mr. Responsible. Why not you?"

"It would be social suicide to give a family fortune to an illegitimate son. So when I couldn't shape Valon up in time..."

Astrid and Ziafar closed their eyes in reverence.

Valon shrugged. "You know what? We should go." He folded up the letter. "Yeah. We, uh." His voice was breaking. "We'll need some time for our visa case to go through, and uh. Yeah. We just. We'll go north and see, uh. Yeah."

As the door closed to his chambers, the others exchanged glances between one another. Tynan broke the silence with a clasp on his sword. "Come on, girls. We'll go buy warm clothes and stuff for the trip. Zee, I'll get you stuff that you'll like, and by that I mean Astrid will because I have horrible taste."

"Noted," noted Ziafar as he buried his nose in his work. When the others had left, though, he neared Valon's doorway and placed an ear to the wall, hearing only hiss-like sobs cut in half by jagged breaths. Was there that much guilt behind a bit of money?

Ziafar sighed to himself, but had little time to ruminate, as the prospect of Astrid buying him clothes sunk in fully. Grabbing his bag and staff, he charged for the door as Valon's crept open. "Now just you three wait! Astrid would just as soon see me in boar hide!"

Valon slipped into the main parlor, fingers grazing over their paperwork lightly. Coming from his crest, the visa appeal would never be approved through traditional means. He scoffed, thinking. There was really only one thing the Judiciary Committee wanted from his offices.

Eight-hundred and nineteen counts of burglary, six hundred and forty-two counts of assault, and three counts of loitering on temple grounds with professional company.

Valon compiled Ziafar's papers into an envelope and scrawled a note of his own for the cover letter. For some reason he could not explain, the edges of his eyes stung, and he found this remarkably peculiar.
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


I am the property of Rydia, please return me to her ship.





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Sheyren says...



Chapter 2B: Shopping and Stealing


Admittedly, the shopping plaza was a mess. It wasn't a surprise, however. Even this greedy corner of the world felt the effects of the mana drought. The once majestic shopping alley was now less than adequate. The sale booths lining both sides were beat up, with messy quilting replacing the previously intricate carpets that roofed them. That wasn't even mentioning the noticeable decline in quality of supplies, and the increase in prices. Everyone were desperate to make money, and the group kept their eyes out for scams.

They knew exactly what they were shopping for, which was a good thing. This was no longer the place for couples to go on long, romantic shopping sprees. You went, got the things you needed, and left. There were other, slightly nicer shopping plaza, but being wanted by the Pontifex meant staying low. Real low.

“So, how 'bout we go for the warm clothes first?” Astrid offered. The group had been unnaturally silent, as silence was the only way to make it through here unnoticed. So, her awkward attempt at breaking the silence was met with a desperate response. They all hated silence, and wanted top break the silence. Silence was a good sign you were dead.

“I don't see why not. Ziafar, Zoey?” Tynan agreed, turning to the two who were still silent.

“You think I care? Just shop quickly, so we can leave. I really hate this place.”

Zoey rolled her eyes. “Ugh, Zia, you're such a kill joy. We gotta take our time! A young girl like me, in the prime of her youth, is supposed to go on long, enjoyable shopping sprees! Its the healthy thing to do!”

Astrid glanced around. “Zoey, less drama, more shopping.”

“Not you too! I-”

Tynan shushed her with a scathing glance. The group was tense, and Zoey had been too occupied to notice. A quick spin brought to her attention a group of thugs swaggering towards them, malicious intent boiling in their eyes. They were directly behind Zoey, a grin spreading on their dirty mugs. Zoey hopped backwards to the safety of the rest of the group and reached for the knives she kept in a pouch on her waist. Ziafar next to her placed his hand on her shoulder to halt her.

“Hey there. You guys look like you got some gold on ya.” The apparent leader spread his lips into a toothy grin, though it was more of a toothless grin. That dentistry job was not one Zoey wanted to see again. The four gangsters behind him snickered and sneered and whatever else gangsters do. They were all tall, but not particularly muscular, and they were seriously underfed. Zoey figured she could take them.

“Listen, we're not looking for trouble.” Astrid said, putting her hands up innocently.

“We're just here to shop.”

“We don't want no trouble either, so hand us the gold and move along.” The leader once again threatened. He smirked, and again his quadruplet of idiots sniggered. Zoey had had enough with them. In a second, she had released herself from Ziafar's hand and drew a knife. Jumping forward, she caught the leader off guard and barreled into him, sending him tumbling. She then kicked his face, chipping several of his last teeth and knocking him unconscious.

The other four charged forward. Zoey ducked under the blade of a knife one was wielding, and rammed his gut with the handle of her knife. She hopped backward, and her opponent had pointed his knife at her throat while lunging. She parried with her respective weapon, tossed it into the air, kicked him across the face, and caught it. He stumbled back up, but too slowly. Zoey stepped on his wrist, forcing him to drop the knife. She picked up his head and let it slam to the ground. He was out cold.

She turned and saw Tynan standing over another unconscious, and Astrid punching another in the nose. Ziafar was taking the last guy's nearly empty pouch of gold, as an insurance for the attack.

“I must say, that was kinda impressive, Zoey,” Tynan said, sounding as impressed as he said he was.

“And reckless as all hells!” Ziafar snapped. “What convinced you that was a good
idea?!”

“The prospect of them shutting up,” Zoey remarked. “Which, I'll point out they did.”

“Never. Again. Understand? Good.” Ziafar spoke scathingly, with a stern glance at the
bodies. Zoey was convinced he was being unfair. No one got hurt, and they ended up getting money, however small the quantity. She thought she deserved a thank-you, but she said nothing. Ziafar was not the man to get angry (angrier).

Yet again, Astrid broke the awkward silence that ensued. “So, about those warm clothes...”
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- BrumalHunter"

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Rydia says...



Chapter 2C: Shadows of what might be and what was

Astrid broke the awkward silence that ensued after the fight with the would-be-thieves. “So, about those warm clothes... and Ziafar, give them their money back."

"What? But they tried to rob us?" Ziafar complained as he closed his fingers over the bag in protest. Astrid turned up her glare factor but Ziafar held out stubbornly. "They'd have taken ours and left us with nothing!"

"He's right, they might even have killed us, though I suppose at least we wouldn't need the money then," Zoey added with a carefree grin. Sometimes Astrid wondered if fighting didn't make her feel relaxed or something since after a battle she always looked almost like a cat who'd managed to scratch a particularly persistent itch. But somehow she couldn't help loving the fairy girl; maybe it was the Valon factor - everyone looked like a saint after you'd spent ten minutes with that man.

"They need to eat and what do you think they'll do then? Do you think the next group they rob will be as strong as us?" Astrid couldn't help but let the anger enter her voice as she opened her own pouch, shook out a few small coins and approached the two huddled men who were still conscious - the one that she'd punched and the one Ziafar robbed.

"Maybe we should kill them then?" Ziafar suggested. "Like you say, they'll only rob- or kill - someone else." He looked to Zoey for support but even she looked a bit uncertain and Tynan stood stoically to the side, watching Astrid without any readable expression on his face.

Astrid gave the money to the man she'd punched, perhaps as a kind of compensation, though honestly she'd have happily punched him again and was somewhat regretting not copying Zoey's technique of pushing their heads into the paving stones. "Here," she said coolly. "But remember this, we live here and we have friends here so if we hear that a group of your description has robbed or hurt anyone else, my friends will hunt you down and deal with you. Do you understand that? My friends will hunt you down and I will not stand in their way."

Astrid stood up to go and the man latched onto her arm suddenly, clutching at her and pulling her toward him. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you," he sobbed incoherently as Tynan sprang forward and pushed him down.

"Leave. Make sure your friends understand what will happen if anyone is hurt."

Now Tynan's face was readable and he was angry. Astrid looked away and rubbed her arm slightly as she started walking toward the clothes vendors. The rest of the group followed. The silence was so thick that it might have suffocated them had Ziafar not finally, tentatively broken it:

"Well, it looks like now I get to choose what Astrid wears." He attempted a smile and it felt like the group held their breath until Astrid looked over her shoulder with the beginnings of a smirk.

"You're not choosing, but I'll definitely let you pay."

Zoey snorted and murmured under her breath: "If you let him choose, you'd not be wearing enough to survive the cold of Howlengale."


A few hours and a considerable sum of gold later found the party back in Valon's company.

"... she's such a saint, somebody should raise a statue to her or something," Zoey chattered happily at Valon as she recounted the day's entertainment. "

"Do you think they'll cause more trouble?" Valon frowned. "I don't like leaving places with trouble at our backs."

"When do you ever not do that?" Zoey asked with a snort. "I think we're good. The two I put down won't walk straight for days and Astrid and Tynan put the fear of death into the others. Like, literal death - Astrid said we'd go back without her if they hurt anyone again."

Ziafar was at Valon's desk, crouched over his notes while Tynan checked his weapons and armour for wear and tear in the corner. Astrid sat over to the side to give the others their space. She had her head down, grinding a paste with her pestle and mortar but she couldn't help hearing the words. She couldn't help seeing those three faces again and hearing the voice of the fourth: "No, wait, please! I've got a daughter, I've got a daughter like you and I love her so much. I love her, I love her, please - don't take me away from my Abigail."

Astrid stood up abruptly and put her herbs to the side. "I want to go to the Manablush Festival Grounds before we leave. Who's coming with me?"

At that moment, Astrid would have given anything to not be alone with her thoughts and she looked pleadingly around the room of companions. She didn't expect much from Ziafar and he might still be feeling a bit sore about the lightness of his purse, but she hoped that Zoey might join her and didn't even mind if she dragged Valon along and maybe if Valon came then Tynan would kind of have to as well.
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Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and the shadows will fall beyond you.
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